San Francisco moves to red tier, Texas and other states drop masks. Is reopening now a good idea?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel

Seven counties across California, including San Francisco, moved into a less restrictive tier this week in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan. Indoor dining can resume at 25% capacity, stores can welcome more customers, and movie theaters and gyms can reopen.

More counties, including LA, could leave the purple (most restrictive) tier in the coming weeks. If new coronavirus cases stay at or below seven per 100,000 people for two weeks, the state will allow counties to move forward.

But public health officials warn that reopening too quickly could undo the progress we’ve made.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing on Monday, “At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country.”

Rita Burke, Assistant Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, says there’s room for optimism because California has made a dent in new COVID-19 cases after the winter surge. However, people must stay cautious, and a fourth wave is possible as more dangerous variants are out there.

“This does not mean that we can throw our masks away and start attending large parties. We still have to be vigilant and practice what our public health experts have told us.”

However, this is the case in Texas, Mississippi, and Massachusetts, and Burke says it’s tough to understand the rationale behind telling people to not wear masks.

“COVID is not over. And it's going to be a while before it's over,” she says.

With this latest burst of enthusiasm and reopening, counties might be setting themselves up for closing down again.

“What happened last time was we had opened all or many sectors very quickly simultaneously. And hopefully this time around, we've learned from that, and when we do open, we're really able to prioritize what sectors need to be open,” Burke says.

Could other less restrictive states influence California and LA? Burke doesn’t think that’ll happen so easily.

“We've been at this for almost a year now. So we know what works, what we need to do as individuals to play our part and to bear our responsibility to … stop the spread. So I think people are understanding that that's really not a good idea, that taking off your mask is not what's going to help the current situation around COVID right now.”

Even though LA is in the purple tier, the daily positivity rate is around 3%, and we’re close to qualifying for the red tier. So does Burke feel safer to do more things now?

She says it depends on the activity, and in particular, she won’t hesitate to send her 11-year-old son back to school once classrooms reopen because she knows it’s important to him, and he’s been home for nearly a full academic year.

“It really is a case-by-case basis. … It's very much a personal decision. Because at each point, even now, you are assessing your own risks. … If you go out, we know that always carries an inherent risk. But you also have to balance that with continuing to live your life in the most possible normal way,” she says.

Meanwhile, President Biden announced that vaccines would be available in May for everyone. Burke says that’s very optimistic, and she hopes it materializes.

“Also with the recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, perhaps that also becomes more realistic because we now have a third vaccine that's becoming available that only requires one shot, not two,” she adds.



  • Rita Burke - Assistant Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine